Durham Street Activation Discussion

The urbanist playbook has a whole section dedicated to ground floor retail as a way to "activate" a street (i.e. get people out and about and breathe life into the streetscape).

At the same time, we have been hearing about the decline of physical retail, replaced by Amazon and other forms of delivery. The United States has over 5 times the amount of retail space per person as Europe. Of course, this is mostly due to our gigantic malls that are now failing. There is still plenty of room for new retail near growing and densifying centers. This type of retail still represents a much smaller footprint per person than a mall (more space in a less dense area).

That said, the whole process makes me think that diversifying the playbook for how we activate streets would be a good thing. We shouldn't only rely on retail. I don't have any suggestions that are BETTER than retail, but below are a few thoughts that might be added to ground floor retail to create a more interesting streetscape.

Behind-the-Curtain Retail

I recently road tripped up to Burlington, VT (yes, with a 3-year-old and twin babies - yeesh). Side note, I was FLOORED by how "Missing Middle" housing exists everywhere in Burlington, mainly in the form of gigantic houses that have been partitioned into multiple units. That is a post for another day, though.

We stayed in a great airbnb that was walking distance to a little artsy district. Two mornings we got bagels from Myer's Bagel Bakery (apparently Montreal-style bagels, which I had never heard of before). There was a (socially distanced) line to order, but I didn't mind waiting at all, because when you are in line, this is what you see:

It's great. You get to watch bagels being made, cooked and placed into their bins. The old brick oven is beautiful. Unfortunately, you have to go into the store to see the operation, but imagine a bagel shop in downtown Durham where you could watch them make the bagels through a window on the street. Maybe there is even outdoor seating where you could have a coffee and bagel, while watching the craftspeople work.

I have heard that there are bbq joints in eastern NC where you can watch them slow-cook the pork. Perhaps that kind of "behind-the-curtain" look isn't conducive to an urban environment, but I am sure there are plenty of retail operations, especially in food that would make for great viewing!

And what about addressing other senses as well. I live in Lakewood and walk to the Food Lion. There aren't a lot of people who do this, but a few. On my walk, I smell the smoker outside of Honeysuckle Lakewood. I love glancing over to see the smoke billowing up and the chefs in front of the smoker. It's too bad it is such a low-pedestrian area.

Behind-the-Curtain Production

While Cocoa Cinnamon in Lakewood is also retail, it has its coffee production facility in the building, behind a glass wall so everyone can see. Production is fascinating. Remember when Mr. Rogers would take us to the crayon factory to see how those were made?

Imagine street windows where you could see IndyWeek being printed or bicycles being repaired at Bullseye. Downtown Durham has more wet lab space than the average downtown. I am not an expert on what goes on in a wet lab, but I imagine it would be fascinating to watch!

Mini Parks

My daughter has fallen in love with Duke Park recently. It's a large park with two different playgrounds. She loves running back and forth between them. That said, there don't seem to be as many small parks and plazas downtown. What about a small park with benches and a swing set? There doesn't have to be gigantic climbing equipment and slides, and swings, and on and on. This park could just have one thing and a place for parents to watch.

Another mini park, maybe on the next block could have one of those devices where you whisper into a tube in one corner of the park and someone else can hear you all the way on the other corner. Some parks could have chess or other activities that appeal to an older crowd.

As a parent, I would LOVE to have an afternoon of mini park hopping with my daughter, grabbing a pastry from Loaf and a coffee from Beyu along the way.

All of these ideas may be a little pie-in-the-sky. How do you incentivize IndyWeek to show their printing? How does Durham acquire evenly dispersed land for mini parks? That said, if we could somehow encourage a culture of "showing your work" both for retail and production businesses downtown, it could encourage more pedestrians, which is a virtuous cycle. Above all else, humans like watching other humans, so more pedestrians on the street would be a self-perpetuating phenomenon!

I'd love to hear other ideas for activating streets beyond ground floor retail in the forum thread here!

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